The first passenger to report to the infirmary complained of acute stomach cramps and, while she was being given a tiny cup of Pepto Bismo, vomited on the attending nurse’s shoes. Two more passengers, a first-class couple, came in shortly thereafter. They were pale, their hands were clammy and they also suffered from cramps. The nurse logged these complaints, and when twelve more passengers appeared in a twenty-minute span, she called the ship’s physician, Dr. Subramanian Purushotham.
Dr. Purushotham was a regular at the Captain’s table. Tall, graying, a urologist by training who had studied in
He had seen every conceivable manifestation of sea-sickness, agoraphobia, and motion disorders. He had set broken bones, treated fibrillating hearts, purged gastrointestinal parasites, and closed the eyes of more than a dozen cardiac arrest victims. He could and often did prescribe antidepressants, beta-blockers and, on rare occasions, opiates. He had never, in his long sea-borne career, witnessed anything like the tumult that soon took over his infirmary.
The first patient had come in shortly after one that morning. By five a.m., more than three hundred passengers were clamoring for Dr. P’s attention. The corridors reeked of regurgitate and other effluvia he hardly dared name. Three of the ship’s four nurses were as ill as the passengers they were trying to treat.
Dr. P. knew that, 24 hours earlier, the ship’s sous saucier, Jean Marie Berger, had complained of agonizing pains in his bloated stomach. Dr. P. had diagnosed an inflamed appendicitis in need or urgent removal and remanded the man to
Captain Roderick Stuart, made aware of the pandemonium, checked in by phone every 15 minutes. As the news grew worst, he consulted his charts. By seven that morning, 417 passengers at last count were seriously ill. One elderly woman had lapsed into a coma, three tourist-class fares were vomiting blood. Few crewmembers were affected, which was a blessing. All hands not crucial to the immediate running of the ship were on clean-up detail, swinging mops and buckets throughout the four decks.
Shortly before eight, Captain Stuart, having explored all available alternatives, changed the ship’s course. They were twenty hours out of
Even at maximum steam, the Isadora would not reach
for twenty-five hours. He consulted his charts again.
His mistress had joined him. “What does Dr. P. say?”
“Food poisoning, almost certainly. Perhaps botulism. Two more passengers are in a coma. ” He massaged his eyes. “Nothing like this has ever happened.”
She stood behind him, rubbed his back. He was standing erect at the chart table and she thought she could feel a slight tremor beneath her fingers.
“A Coast Guard helicopter is on its way to ferry the coma cases out, and the cutter Seawitch is on its way with half a dozen doctors. There aren’t enough helicopters to take everybody. “
She kneaded his shoulders, the muscles unforgiving as stones.
Captain Stuart said, “